I call it Airworld: the scene, the place, the style. ... Airworld is a nation within a nation, with its own language, architecture, mood, and even its own currency—the token economy of airline bonus miles that I've come to value more than dollars. …
—Walter Kirn, Up in the Air
I blew it. I'd been invited to go lounge-hopping at JFK with "MondeBlonde," to bounce from terminal to terminal via the AirTrain, but I arrived at the airport too late. The E train wasn't running normally, which nobody bothered to tell us G-train-riding peons before we transferred. Considering how much public money was spent on the AirTrain in order to make it easier to get to JFK, the MTA might want to think about fixing this weak link. Or maybe infrastructural breakdown is part of NYC's international brand strategy?
Anyway, after a delightfully disembodied float over Queens in the AirTrain, I arrived at Terminal 7, whizzed through check-in and security—is Iceland even on the terrorism map?—and shyly approached the group having drinks at the Atlantic Bar, next to my departure gate. "Are you—?" I stopped, my nerd-resistance reflexes making it impossible for me to say "FlyerTalkers."
"You're 'Maudie'!" smiled an attractive, young, semiprofessorial-looking guy. "I'm 'dhuey.' " (Maud is my middle name; I've been using it online since I joined the Echo virtual community in 1991.)
The members of the group had never met in person before but were already speaking the lingua franca of their tribe: the intricacies of elite travel upgrades, achieved through the accrual of frequent flyer miles by any means necessary.
"Lufthansa treats you like shit even if you have elite status," one guy was saying, "but Singapore Airlines … " (Here he made an obsequious head-bow.)
"This is the only flight I've been on that I have no status at all!" bemoaned another guy theatrically. "In economy you're nothing, you're nobody!" Vigorous nodding agreement all around about the indignity of not getting any perks on this particular flight. Thanks to our mistakenly low fares, we were all flying coach. I felt a little hurt: I fly economy all the time and had never realized I was a nobody. Had I missed something?
The conversation was funny to me, because this was not an elite-looking crowd. They were an unremarkably normal cross-section of vast middle-class America, brought together by a single, very specific passion. As a semi-smug member of the David Brooks-bashing crowd, I hated to admit it, but here was a textbook illustration of his notion that the millions of interest groups and subcultures in America allow almost everyone to be captain of their own domain.
I ask a couple of them if they have to fly a lot for business. Yep. "And that's the way to get the miles, right?" I ask. A significant pause follows.
"No … there are lots of ways. …" says one of them, giving a knowing look to the other.
I'm dying to know more, but just then a dark-skinned, middle-aged guy walks into the bar, beaming and proudly waving a couple of tickets. His entrance sparks a chorus of loud "No way!"s and "How'd you do that!"s He had done the impossible: scored two free business-class upgrades on a $61 RT fare. This obviously gave him some sort of wizard status within the group.
"It helps to be a handsome guy," he says, smirking gleefully. "She just liked my looks."
"How did he do that?" I asked. The plane had supposedly been overbooked, with no room to spare, and this was a half-hour before takeoff. "They leave a lot of seats open until the last minute," explained the guy to my right. "At this point, everyone should be checked in, so you can go ask for a better seat." I feel like an idiot with my row 32 ticket.
MondeBlonde breezed in, all black vinyl, exposed bosom, and bleached hair, instantly assuming the place she was clearly accustomed to—at the center of attention. "I got here early," she recounted breathlessly, "so I left Terminal 7, got to the American [Airlines] lounge in [terminal] 9 in under seven minutes, and I kept going from 8 to 7 to 9 and back again. They kept giving me drink coupons, and I kept bringing them over here, then I'd go back and get more drink coupons … so I'm really bombed now," she concluded happily, downing more wine. It was good that I hadn't met up with her. I have a weakness for free booze that might have interfered with my Margaret Mead mission.
"They were nicer at the International American lounge in 9 than the New York one in 8," she went on in her hoarse, party-girl voice. She'd explained to the personnel there that since AA didn't fly to Iceland, they had to grant her the normal membership perks, including free drinks, because was it her fault she couldn't fly AA? (I later found out that this was in fact a rule, though often the U.S. lounges—cheap, puritanical, or both?—didn't respect it.) While she was lounge loitering, she managed to find time to post her thoughts on FlyerTalk: "I am dreading a flight in coach as I have not seen the back of the bus for quite sometime. And I have not eaten at all today which may be the only way to get that coach meal down the hatch."
"Airworld" is most definitely the FTers' domain. And their sense of territorial entitlement spanned the entire aircraft. All during the five-hour flight, while most passengers slept, MondeBlonde, "zoegksj" and a few others wandered the aisles chatting, flirting, and ducking into the galley for a drink as if it were their own kitchen. MondeBlonde got drunker and drunker, eventually getting her cocktail privileges cut off by the cabin attendants. Zoe bitched to me about the extremists who had bailed at the last minute, refusing to come on a trip where they could neither sit in first class nor earn miles.
Among my friends and peers, travel is automatically assumed to be an essential, mind-broadening instrument of pleasure and sophistication. The idea that travel could be reduced to something so abstract, like fractional commodities options, seemed perversely refreshing and exhilaratingly, decadently p***modern to me. (Sorry; I just can't say that word.)
I don't spend a nickel, if I can help it, unless it somehow profits my account. I'm not just talking hotels and cars and long-distance carriers and Internet services, but mail-order steak firms and record clubs and teleflorists. I shop them according to the miles they pay, and I pit them against each other for the best deal. Even my broker gives miles as dividends. …
—Up in the Air